Aston Villa were welcomed on to the pitch by an honour guard of Villa Park heroes but the match that followed was a reminder of how far the current claret-and-blue crop are from the glory days of the past.
InterToto Cup success in 2001 aside, Villa have been starved since a League Cup triumph in 1996 and, following a dire home defeat to Everton, supporter unrest was aimed at the chairman, Doug Ellis, before kick-off.
What is evidently of concern to Villa's manager, David O'Leary, is that the club is still floundering in mid-table with European qualification again looking unlikely. O'Leary's pre-match assertion that he would preserve his record of never having finished outside the top six as a manager was met with the occasional snigger after recent performances.
A deserved win over Middlesbrough was hardly ground-breaking, but it at least pointed to the possibility of better times ahead. The Danish international Martin Laursen scored his first goal for Villa after six months out and performed admirably alongside Olof Mellberg in a defensive partnership that barely gave Middlesbrough a sniff at goal. The teenager Luke Moore came off the bench to seal the win 12 minutes from time with his first for a club aware that harnessing young talent is important when it is almost impossible to match the top three for spending power.
"The fans are expecting you to be in a position where only clubs who spend loads and loads of money on top quality get to be," said O'Leary. "We have this Aston Villa name and I feel the expectation of it - but there is no substance to it. Our strength since I came here is to get a lot of people out, get a tight unit and work hard for each other. But we still need more quality players that others can lean on - more bossy players who are more demanding with more steel."
"Of course being in Europe is a physical and mental drain," observed O'Leary's opposite number, Steve McLaren. It is a drain that O'Leary and the Villa Park faithful can only dream of at the moment.
Goals: Laursen (63) 1-0; Moore (78) 2-0.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Mellberg, Laursen, Samuel; Solano, Davis, Hendrie, Berson, Barry; Vassell (Moore, 55). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Hitzlsperger, Djemba-Djemba, Ridgewell.
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Nash; Parnaby, Riggott, Southgate, Quedrue; Nemeth (Graham, 64), Parlour, Doriva, Zenden, Downing (Job, 81); Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Knight (gk), Cooper, McMahon.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Davis; Middlesbrough Doriva, Parlour.
Man of the match: Laursen.
Attendance: 34,201.Reuse content